Postcard from Malaga, Spain: Cuisine anchored by seafood

El Pimpi Bodega Bar

El Pimpi Bodega Bar is an institution in Malaga. Although it was not founded until 1971, the buildings and décor are much older. Enormous wooden wine kegs line the hallway of the entrance.

Historically, los pimpis were the young men who would head to the docks to help unload cruise ships and then freelance their services as informal tour guides for the newly arrived tourists. El Pimpi has numerous dining rooms and a bright patio, but unfortunately it feels as though pimpis just led an entire boatload of tourists there. Definitely worth visiting though. Somehow we found a slow time, like early on a Monday evening, to belly up to the bar for a glass of wine and a tapa-sized order of croquetas. Both were perfect.

But on to seafood. And where to find the freshest? Head to a market. El Mercado Atarazanas is reputed to have the best. Tourists and locals in equal numbers compete for high tops with stools outside the market. The first time we landed at was a relative newcomer, Happy Fish, the name of which worried us. Too close to “happy meals.” But, fortunately, that was not the case. We felt reassured by the fact we were brought a bottle of wine that coincidentally bore the name of our favorite restaurant almost anywhere – La Biznaga in Oaxaca. On two other occasions we snagged space at the longer established Bar Mercado Atarazanas.

Both delivered great fresh seafood. We dove into platters of boquerones fritos (fried fresh white anchovies), chiles padron, fried eggplant, tortillitas de camarones (shrimp fritters). By our third trip to Mercado Atarazanas and after almost two months of opportunities, we finally got up the courage to take the plunge. We ordered an Andalucian delicacy we had been avoiding – ortiguillas de mar frito.

In the sea, these anemones use their long swaying tenacles to sting and entrap fish. Green algae filters through their somewhat translucent bodies. Restaurants serve them battered and fried. Hey, anything is good fried, right? Ortiguillas come close to a fried oyster in texture, but an oyster with a belly-full of blackish green algae. That makes them sound horrible, which they weren’t. Just a tad challenging for us. We did make it through about two-thirds of the way through our media racion (no tapa-size available). Box checked. More boquerones, please.

The market seafood stalls are packed, but locals have an escape spot away from the maddening crowd – La Peregrina. Not always easy to snag a table, but there is more elbow room. The place is somewhat sterile compared to the bustling market, but loved that women seemed to rule the open kitchen. All the same dishes can be found here. The grilled pulpo was perfect, but the pincho (skewer) of red tuna blew us away. You cannot tell from the photo, but it was seared on the outside and rare in the center – wonderful.

By all inside appearances, La Taberna de Cervantes appeared a perfect place to delve into traditional dishes, and our food was fine. But our waiter totally ruined it for us. Menus in the Andalucia region often feature three sizes of servings – tapas (light appetizers), media racion and full racion (full size). Our waiter, acting like a greedy pimpi trying to take advantage of tourists just off the boat, kept trying to upsize us, saying we needed raciones of everything. Oh, and better wine. And the “background music” was a commercial radio station playing tired cheesy tunes. Not a good experience, but, who knows, the “parent” restaurant does get good reviews….

El Gastronauta really should not be lumped together with these more traditional places, but, in order to restrict Malaga to two food posts, I needed a volunteer. Reservations are recommended in this small, narrow casual restaurant popular with a young crowd of locals. Vegetable sides are a bit more creative than many places, and on weekends the kitchen turns out a variety of quite respectable paellas.

More food later….

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Reunion with La Biznaga and Los Danzantes

Have blogged numerous times over the past few years about Biznaga. Still has what we regard as the best margaritas we have ever been served, whether made with tequila or mezcal. Despite the Mister’s online reading comparing pulque to the flavor and consistency of wallpaper paste, we even found the milky white house pulque (pictured above) a refreshing starter.

La Biznaga is always our first stop and final meal in Oaxaca. The menu is so varied, it suits any mood – soup, salads, full blow-out meal.

The plump shrimp perched atop rice and mole and the tuna with asparagus kept us returning as well. First time trying the jamon focaccia with great fresh chips and the flavorful memelas de chamorro. Only managed to make it once all the way through to the luscious coconut flan.

The patio of Los Danzantes is so beautiful; the presentations always are spot-on; and the experience is always relaxing. However, Danzantes upped the prices of cocktails substantially mid-visit, which made it not quite as welcoming. Yet the hierbabuena mezcal cocktail is an amazingly good drink. And Danzantes’ unusual pink peppercorn ice cream now ranks among my all-time favorite flavors.

The frequency of our patronage was hampered by the Danzantes’ increased popularity; lunch-time reservations definitely are recommended.

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Photo menu of a few local spots

Have some friends flying into Oaxaca about now, so wanted to do a quick photo menu for them of a few flavorful options. Our trip in August was shorter than most, so we did not visit quite as many places as normal.

As always, La Biznaga remains on the top of our list. The best margarita in the world is a major drawing card. Whether it’s for simple quesadillas for a light lunch or an upscale rare tuna atop roasted asparagus and crowned with an avocado mountain, we always leave happy. We had never tried the fish ceviche (featured photo) before or the stuffed Portobello mushroom and recommend both.

The patio of Los Danzantes is one of the most pleasant dining spots in Oaxaca, and it is a great place to sample mezcal cocktails. A major plunge into bold Oaxacan flavors is the ancho chile filled with huitlacoche (corn smut) and goat cheese atop a puree of platano, sweetened with a piloncillo sauce and swarming with a few of those prized chapulines (grasshoppers).

Rarely hungry at night, no wonder, we almost missed that El Olivo Gastrobar is open for lunch on Sundays. While popular for its tapas, it features two of our favorite dishes, arroz negro colored with squid ink and filled with seafood; and luscious large shrimp and serrano ham in a pernod sauce. Both could easily be split.

No fancy cocktails, but a nice house mezcal is offered at Casa Taviche. The draw is a delicious three-course lunch for 75 pesos. That’s right, less than $5. Everything is so fresh and well presented, from salads to small desserts. The choices for starters and entrees vary daily and usually include meat, fish and vegetarian options, such as chicken with poblano chiles or a vegetable tarta of layers of sweet potato and spinach. On weekends, Casa Taviche prepares perfect pork tacos, both cochinita pibil and al pastor.

And, on the other extreme, there is Criollo. A child of the famed chef of Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York City, Criollo gets quite the buzz in food media. We simply were far from blown away by the flavors. I admit we got off on the wrong foot when they were out of the $42 red wine at lunch time and could not offer us another for less than $1500 pesos, a major jump. I’ll link you directly to the New York Times write-up so as not to prejudice you. Lunch at Criollo is a leisurely seven-course well-presented sampling of dishes using local seasonal Oaxacan ingredients prepared using traditional techniques. Aside from our disappointment on the wine front, it’s not outrageously expensive. But we simply enjoyed our experiences at other places much more. To me, what the young chefs of Mixtli are pulling off in their railcar parked in San Antonio is far more interesting.

Hating to sound negative again, but last year we recommended Mezquite. The upstairs rooftop is such a nice setting, and the amuse-bouche of corn esquite is a nice starter. The cochnita pibil was a mushy mess of a sandwich, but the tuna tostada was still nice and refreshing. Mezquite bills itself as a mezcal bar as well, yet the cocktails they served us were as sweet as the Shirley Temples we were offered as children. We ordered two perros oaxaquenos, described as containing mezcal artesenal, citrus and sal de guisano. They were pink edging toward red. We asked our server if we had the correct drinks; he assured us we did. We ordered additional lime juice on the side. After adding an ounce of lime juice to each, they were still too sweet to drink. Go for the view, and maybe order straight mezcal.

Have to sign off now. All these pictures made me hungry.